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Training opportunities key to closing health gap

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There are many factors contributing to the gap in health and life expectancy experienced by Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders. These factors range from the adverse health impacts of early life circumstances, right through to the high prevalence of chronic cardiovascular diseases.

Research shows that chronic disease deaths could be halved among Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders by timely and systematic diagnosis, and within a short period of time also. Similarly, appropriate culturally safe support from trained health and medical professionals for mothers and babies in the early years could ameliorate the life-long health impacts of a poor start in life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

A proper supply of health practitioners and medical professionals working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities would go some way to breaking this circuit of poor health. However, what is most needed, but is in limited supply, are health and medical professionals who are fully skilled in best practice service provision to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders.

We know what best practice models of primary health care for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders involve (the AMA published a major report on this in 2011-12). But there are very few opportunities for doctors and health practitioners – either in training or once qualified – to gain hands on experience and excellence in skills and knowledge working in real situations with expert practitioners and researchers doing cutting edge work in Aboriginal health.

To rectify this the AMA believes that there is a great need for centres of excellence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health which can:

  • conduct research on models and approaches to health conditions and risks besetting Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders;
  • provide best practice primary care services based on that research;
  • provide practical training and experience to doctors, health professionals and trainees who take visiting placements at the centres for varying periods of time; and
  • offer accreditation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health to those centres which take placements and meet requirements.

The AMA believes there needs to be a national network of these Teaching Health Centres of Excellence, given that different areas of Australia have different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations with different characteristics and needs.

To fulfil all the above roles, each Teaching Health Centre of Excellence would need to be formed as a collaboration between Aboriginal community-controlled health services, government health services and clinics, and universities involved in teaching and applied research in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

Practical teaching would encompass students from medicine, nursing, allied health and Aboriginal Health Workers at Diploma, Advanced Diploma, Graduate and Post-Graduate level. As students and visiting doctors pass through these centres of excellence and take their posts up elsewhere, they could take back with them knowledge, skills and expertise in the delivery of high quality, culturally competent primary care.

The AMA has advocated for the establishment of a national network of Teaching Health Centres of Excellence in the past, and has resolved to impress upon the new Federal Government the need for these centres of innovation to close the gap.